Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Alexander the Great (Robert Rossen/United Artists, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Alexander the Great, a really peculiar attempt at an historical spectacle from a period in Hollywood history when historical spectacles were really “in” — a time in which the studios figured that the way to counter the threat of TV was to offer sheer size and spectacle. So filmmakers introduced huge processes like Cinerama and CinemaScope (Alexander the Great was shot in CinemaScope), offered 3-D and shot in color with stereophonic sound — and they also went for epic stories that would show off the big investments in giant screens, wraparound projection styles and color. Alexander the Great starred a young and surprisingly hot-looking (especially by comparison to the way he went to seed not long afterwards!) Richard Burton in the title role, and even before we see him on screen we hear him deliver an orotund voice-over during the opening credits that let us know he was capable of slovenly overacting well before he hooked up with Elizabeth Taylor.

But the oddest credit associated with the film was its producer, director and writer, Robert Rossen, whose best-known films — the 1947 Body and Soul, the original (1948) All the King’s Men and The Hustler (1961) — were all contemporary American stories about the darker and more sordid parts of urban or political life. Rossen seemed like a weird choice for an historical potboiler, and he’s the main thing wrong with this movie — and also the main thing right with it; instead of emphasizing the sheer spectacle of it all and filling it full of action and sex the way Cecil B. DeMille would have, he tries for depth and indeed biases his movie so much towards the nastier aspects of power-seeking and empire-building that at times Alexander the Great looks like the dramatis personae of All the King’s Men donned wardrobe for a Hellenistic-themed costume party.

Virtually the entire first half of the film deals with the struggle between Alexander and his father, Philip of Macedon (an almost unrecognizable Fredric March), for control of the burgeoning Macedonian empire, complicated by Philip’s conviction that his wife Olympias (Danielle Darrieux), Alexander’s mother, was unfaithful to him and Alexander really isn’t his son (and given the dramatic difference in appearance between the two men — especially given the weird tow-headed wig Burton wears as Alexander, which varies color between blond and redhead — Philip’s suspicions seem quite understandable), and his determination to divorce Olympias and marry another woman, Barsine (Claire Bloom), so he can have a new son and heir and can disinherit Alexander. Of course Philip dies before he can do all that, and Alexander, despite the determination of the government of Athens to stay out of the confederation he’s made of all Greece, launches his celebrated attack on the Persian empire and its effete emperor, Darius III (Harry Andrews).

What’s odd about Alexander the Great is that it really doesn’t even attempt to make the title character heroic; he’s shown as a megalomaniac, a precursor to both Hitler and Stalin, massacring the people and burning the cities of the lands he conquers and priding himself on his toughness and willingness to have people he’s known all his life executed as traitors for the merest hint of having crossed him. The most admirable character in the whole piece is Memnon (Peter Cushing), an Athenian general who crosses over and fights for Persia (where he tries to talk some sense into Darius and get him to adopt a military strategy against Alexander that makes sense — this, too, has overtones of Hitler’s relations with his generals) — and though there’s a brief voice-over done in character by Ptolemy (credited to Virgilio Texeira — the location work for this was done in Spain and a lot of the down-cast actors are Spanish, though the voiceover is in unaccented orator’s English and it’s almost certainly someone else) that makes a pro forma assertion that Alexander brought better and more humane values to the lands he conquered, that’s certainly belied by his actions as we see them on screen.

It’s not surprising that a film from 1956 de-Gays Alexander — his real-life lover Hephaestion is virtually written out of the script (the actor playing him isn’t even credited!) and he’s shown as genuinely interested in the Persian princess Roxane (Teresa del Río) he marries for dynastic reasons, though far more interested in conquering and leading his army to the border of India than in sex with either gender. What’s amazing about this movie is that it so totally de-heroizes him — reason enough it was a box-office flop and set back Richard Burton’s film career; at times this seems more like a 1960’s or 1970’s movie than a 1950’s one and only the spectacular production and the literal “cast of thousands” (before the days of digital imagery, when in order to show huge hordes of people on screen you actually had to hire and pay that many extras to portray them), as well as Burton’s orotund overacting (he plays his entire role in a state of enervated seriousness and there isn’t even a hint of a sense of humor — which only contributes to the impression we get of Alexander as a grim, driven, hate-filled fanatic and a prototype for more recent would-be world-conquerors) that actually makes him even less of a hero than a more restrained portrayal might have.